July 24, 2013

"The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin" Fails to Face Up to Its Consequences

Comeuppance for the financial scoundrels who bilked people out of their savings and helped wreck the broader economy is once again a hot topic.  In “Blue Jasmine,” the new Woody Allen movie that opens this week, Cate Blanchett plays the disgraced wife of a Bernie Madoff type who has defrauded his clients. Blythe Danner has signed on to a similar role in The Commons of Pensacola, the new play by Amanda Peet that the Manhattan Theatre Club will debut in November. And right now, we’ve got The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, which is playing at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre through Aug. 25.

Playwright Steven Levenson takes his time revealing the specific wrongs his title character did but he tells us right away that Durnin has done five years in jail for them. As the play opens, he is out and desperate to reconnect with his family, who now want no part of him. Using the same guile that got him into trouble, he insinuates himself into the life—and modest home—of his son James. 
While his mother and sister have moved on, James, the show’s true protagonist, is still trying to recover from what happened. He’s stuck in a job that he hates and so depressed that his wife has walked out. He blames it all on his father but somehow can’t turn his back on him.  

The father-son struggle is inherently dramatic, the economic overlay clearly remains relevant and Levenson is a talented guy (click here to read my review of The Language of Trees, his auspicious debut as part of the Roundabout Underground series for young playwrights in 2008) but The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin fails to pack the emotional wallop that it should.

Part of the problem is that Levenson doesn’t quite know what to make of Durnin.  The very gifted actor David Morse combines his own forceful charm with the same quiet menace that made him so effective as the pedophilic uncle in the original production of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive but he’s given too little to work with here. 
It’s never clear why Durnin did what he did.  I wasn’t expecting a Rosebud moment but some insight would have been welcomed.  And the character doesn’t seem the least bit contrite only selfishly hell bent on getting his old life back. Which could have been fine if that narcissism had been put to some dramaturgical use.
Meanwhile a side plot about a budding romance between the son (played with hangdog sincerity by Christopher Denham—click here to read an interview with him) and Katie, a woman he meets in a writing class, seems tacked on. Katie (at least as portrayed by Sarah Goldberg, who’s been better in other plays) is such a dithering airhead that she’s almost an insult to women. 
Director Scott Ellis doesn’t provide much help.  The stage is so ill used (the cramped set is by Beowulf Boritt) and the blocking at times so awkward that I wasn’t always sure where the actors were coming from or going to. 

When you add it all up, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, like its title character, simply fails to pay off.

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